Winter Dehydration: A Complete Guide

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

When you think of dehydration, your mind probably goes to the high temperatures of summer and intense sunlight. It can be easy to assume that you can only get dehydrated when you’re out in the sun, running or doing another type of physical activity. As a result, we often underestimate the risks of winter dehydration. However, it’s important to remember that it’s still possible to experience dehydration in winter and learn how to avoid it.

Keep reading to learn more about winter dehydration, its symptoms, and how to manage it.

Can you get dehydrated in winter?

Yes! You can get dehydrated during any season. Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluid than you take in, regardless of the time of the year. Anyone can experience dehydration, but children and seniors have a higher risk of developing severe dehydration and associated health complications.

Our bodies are approximately two-thirds water, and you can exhibit symptoms of winter dehydration even if your body water percentage only drops by a few percent. Our bodies are constantly losing water when we breathe, sweat, and urinate, among other bodily functions. It’s very important to stay hydrated to maintain a healthy fluid balance, even if you feel like you don’t need to drink a lot of water during the winter.

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If left untreated, dehydration can quickly become a life-threatening condition with serious consequences, which is why it’s so important to catch winter dehydration symptoms early.

Here’s why you may get more dehydrated in winter

During the summer, you’re more likely to remember the importance of drinking plenty of water before, during, and after engaging in physical activity or spending time outdoors. But during the colder months, people tend to forget to drink enough fluids and underestimate the risk of cold-weather dehydration.

A woman in a wool sweater holding a cup of tea to prevent winter dehydration

Not drinking enough water

Many people mistakenly believe that your water intake requirements drop significantly in cold weather, so they underestimate the amount of water that they should drink every day. This significantly increases your risk of dehydration. And since you probably won’t feel hot during the winter, you may not be as tempted to drink water to refresh yourself. Cold weather actually impacts the hormonal mechanisms that trigger thirst, and we simply don’t feel as thirsty when it’s cold.

During the winter, you may also be more likely to forget to carry a water bottle, which also makes it easier to forget to drink enough water. You may crave different drinks, such as coffee, hot chocolate, soda, or alcoholic beverages. Although they contain water, these drinks also contain other substances that can contribute to dehydration by making you urinate more frequently.

Indoor heating

Interestingly, winter dehydration can be worsened by indoor heating, which is commonly used in cold weather. Indoor heating keeps spaces warm even when temperatures drop outside; however, the heat that it produces is very dry. During the winter, you may be more likely to spend much of your time indoors and exposed to dry heat, which can accelerate water loss and dehydration.

More layers

We also tend to wear more layers of clothing during the winter, such as heavy coats, sweaters, and winter jackets. While bundling up keeps us cozy and comfortable during the colder months, it can also increase our sweat production, which is another way we lose fluids.

Sweat evaporates quickly in cold, dry weather, so sweating can be less evident in the winter than in the summer.

You’re less likely to feel hot, and you may even sweat through your clothing without realizing it. This makes it easier to miss the first signs of dehydration.

Respiratory water loss

Additionally, you may lose more water from your body when you breathe when you’re outdoors in cold weather. If the air is dry, your body will lose more fluid through respiration because your warm, moist breath will exchange vapor with the cold, dry air. When it’s cold enough for you to see your breath, it means that water is leaving your body and evaporating, potentially leaving you at risk of dehydration.

Respiratory water loss will be even greater if you’re exercising or performing physical activities outdoors during the winter months, since you’ll lose more vapor with each breath.

Symptoms of winter dehydration

The symptoms of dehydration can vary from one person to the next. The signs of winter dehydration are the same as for dehydration during any other time of the year. Dehydration in winter symptoms can include:

  • Thirst — In some cases, your body will warn you by increasing your thirst. But your thirst response is diminished in cold weather, so this isn’t the most reliable sign of winter dehydration.
  • Decreased sweating or urination — Increased sweating or urination can make your body lose more water. But once you become dehydrated, you’ll probably sweat and urinate less because your body is trying to retain as much fluid as possible.
  • Dark urine — Because you’re urinating less, urine becomes more concentrated than normal. As a result, it also looks much darker. Urine is a good indicator of your hydration levels, and you should aim for nearly clear, light yellow urine.
  • Fatigue — Hydration is vital for your body to function well, and dehydration can significantly impact your energy levels. When you’re dehydrated, you may feel sluggish, tired, and lethargic and have trouble concentrating.
  • Dry skin or mouth — Your skin may look dry, dull, or cracked when you’re dehydrated. Additionally, your mouth may feel dry and sticky because your salivary glands aren’t able to produce enough saliva to keep your mouth moist. Your lips could also look chapped.
  • Headaches — When you’re dehydrated, less fluids, nutrients, and oxygen are delivered to your brain. As a result, the brain shrinks slightly, which can cause headaches.

Tried-and-true tricks to manage winter dehydration

Drink more water

The simplest strategy to prevent winter dehydration is to drink more water. You can keep a water bottle with you as a constant reminder to drink water. Find a water bottle with measurements on the side to track how much water you’ve had each day. You could also set an alarm or reminder on your phone or smartwatch to remember to drink water several times each day.

Two glasses of water on a table to prevent winter dehydration

You can also get a lot of water from the foods that you eat. Fruits and vegetables tend to have a high water content and contain lots of vitamins and micronutrients that will help keep you healthy during the winter. Additionally, you can incorporate soups, broths, and teas into your daily diet to boost your hydration levels.

You may feel less thirsty during the winter.

Remember that just because you don’t feel thirsty, it doesn’t mean that you should skip drinking water. On average, adults need at least 3.7 liters or 125 ounces of water every day to stay properly hydrated. You should also make sure to drink 16 to 20 ounces (0.5–0.6 L) of water per hour if you’re going to be exercising in the cold.

Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol intake

Caffeinated drinks can worsen the symptoms of dehydration because caffeine acts as a diuretic, which increases your urinary frequency. Consuming caffeine in moderation shouldn’t cause any issues, but if you’re not drinking enough water, it can worsen your symptoms. Alcohol also has a diuretic effect, and alcoholic beverages can lead to dehydration.

Wear the right winter clothes

If you’re going to go outside in cold weather, make sure to protect your mouth and nose to reduce respiratory water loss. You should also keep yourself warm to avoid hypothermia. Layering winter clothes is a great strategy to stay warm while preventing excessive sweating.

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Seek medical assistance

Dehydration can quickly turn into a dangerous situation. Mild cases of winter dehydration will typically respond well to simple measures. But when someone becomes dehydrated, it’s very important to monitor their condition and look for warning signs that tell you that it’s time to seek medical assistance.

If someone is showing signs of dehydration that don’t improve after initial measures, it’s crucial to take them to a doctor as quickly as possible for further treatment and evaluation.

Your skin needs extra hydration in winter, too!

Skin is the largest organ in the human body, and it plays a huge role in regulating our temperature and hydration levels. Your skin acts as a barrier against the cold and dry weather, and it can easily become dry during the winter.

These tips can help keep your skin hydrated during the winter:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Use a heavier facial moisturizer every day
  • Moisturize the rest of your body frequently
  • Apply a lip balm regularly
  • Wear sunscreen every day
  • Place a humidifier in your home or office
  • Lower your thermostat
  • Exfoliate regularly

Most cases of winter dehydration can be resolved simply by increasing your fluid intake. However, it’s important to know the warning signs of severe dehydration so you know when to seek medical help. Drinking plenty of water is the best way to stay hydrated and healthy throughout the winter season.

January 19, 2023